Elemental: We are not your mother’s sexual assault self-protection program

When you think about sexual assault self-protection, what comes to mind? Elbow strikes? Knees to the groin? Padded suits? Instructors advising women to carry their keys defensively, to watch their drinks, and not to walk alone at night? Preparation to confront a faceless attacker who emerges from the shadows—or a windowless white van—just long enough to impose his will on an unsuspecting victim? Such approaches have been common for years, but they have limited utility.

Assaults by strangers are devastating and inspire great fear, but they are rare. The vast majority of sexual assaults are between people who know each other, and—at least on college campuses—they tend to happen on dates. Because people are less likely to use violence to defend themselves against those they care about, standard self defense approaches are limited in their effectiveness. Students are unlikely to use them, in part because there is a mismatch between their training and the realities that they encounter. Sexual assault encompasses a broader range of experiences and is more complicated than the stereotyped image of women confronting strange men who lurk in the shadows.

These challenges are best met through greater inclusivity and flexibility: Training must simulate a more inclusive set of scenarios—dating, long-term partnerships, friendships, and hookups. It must also be inclusive in terms of the population it serves, both because sexual assault is everyone’s concern, and because assault rates among gender and sexual minorities is high. It must teach a broad and flexible set of strategies and tactics that can be tailored to fit the situation, and include non-violent physical and verbal responses that demonstrate a tried-and-true record of effectiveness.

Our philosophy at Elemental is that violence is not the only option. Since 2011, we have built, tested, and refined an efficient training program that is consistent with this philosophy and makes a critical, evolutionary step forward in reducing sexual assault rates. We are a synthesis of some of the best risk-reduction and primary prevention strategies—a combination that has a demonstrated record of long-term effectiveness in our peer-reviewed research publications (see the citations below for a sample of our latest work). As noted in a recent New York Times article, such verified successes are extraordinarily rare. We may not yet have international recognition; we are relatively new and small, but our results are promising and we are growing. Moreover, our programming dovetails particularly well with the social norming and bystander intervention approaches that have become so popular on college campuses and that are doing the important work of shifting campus culture.

Where do we fit in? We are the micro-level last line of defense within culture as it stands today, with current beliefs and values, current gender norms, and current behavior. We are the private decisions, words, and actions taken when bystanders are not around, the communication between partners that helps us judge intent and find consent, and the means of promoting broader social change by shifting the way that face-to-face interactions unfold. We are a method of achieving safety when situations become surprising, chaotic, and awkward or dangerous. We are flexible, yet simple. We are inclusive.

We invite you to become acquainted with the path of our program through this blog, and to find inspiration to join this growing movement to make the world a little safer than we found it. In the near future, we’ll be exploring a wide variety of topics, including the importance of early intervention, the divisions between primary prevention and risk reduction strategies, victim blaming and responsibility for social change, the importance of considering gender and context in unraveling this problem, and related issues.

~The Directors

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2015       Menning, Chadwick and Mellisa Holtzman.  “Combining Primary Prevention and Risk Reduction Approaches in Sexual Assault Programming.” Journal of American College Health. DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2015.1042881 Online first at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2015.1042881

2015       Holtzman, Mellisa and Chadwick Menning.  “Integrating Experiential Learning and Applied Research to Promote Student Learning and Faculty Research.”  College Teaching 63: 112-118. DOI:  10.1080/87567555.2015.1019825  Online first at: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/XKib3DspBp9PhxKY2CM4/full

2014       Holtzman, Mellisa and Chadwick L. Menning. “A New Model for Sexual Assault Protection: Creation and Initial Testing of Elemental.Journal of Applied Social Sciences DOI: 10.1177/1936724414536394.  Online first at: http://jax.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/06/11/1936724414536394


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